This June marks the 10th anniversary of National Caribbean-American Heritage Month in the United States. Ten years ago, in 2006, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed into law by then President George W. Bush.
Ten years later, however, the month continues to be one celebrated largely by a handful—the majority being Caribbean immigrants themselves. Unlike Hispanic Heritage Month or Asian American Heritage Month, there is no national impetus to laud the contributions of Caribbean nationals to the United States. You won’t see National Caribbean-American Heritage Month celebrated on CNN or MSNBC or CBS even though, unlike most new immigrant groups, Caribbean immigrants have been in this country since slavery.
As Damani Davis wrote in “Ancestors from the West Indies,” “Many of the earliest enslaved Blacks in the American colonies were transported to the North American colonies by way of the Caribbean.”
Davis added, “Many American citizens currently categorized as ‘Black’ or African-American in the federal censuses potentially have ancestors who were among tens of thousands of immigrants who migrated from the Caribbean region during the first decades of 20th century—roughly from the 1910s into the 1930s, or even earlier.”
This migration was especially the case in South Carolina, as Davis and many historians have posited, because that state had largely been a mainland extension of the British colony of Barbados. So when slaveholding families moved to North America to acquire land for new plantations, they brought their enslaved property with them and imported others from the West Indies.
Further, the Haitian Revolution in 1791 sent another wave of migration from the Caribbean region. “From the 1790s until approximately 1810, thousands of white, free colored, and some enslaved Black Haitian refugees relocated to coastal cities such as Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and especially to New Orleans, where they made their most significant cultural and demographic impact,” Davis states in his “Historical and Genealogical Overview of Afro-Caribbean Immigration, 1900–1930s.”
Many West Indians also made their contribution to U.S. society as freed Blacks, including Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who is regarded as the founder of the city of Chicago, then called Eschikago, and who was born in 1745 in Saint-Marc in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). And of course Prince Hall, the noted abolitionist in Boston who was born in Barbados and went on to found Prince Hall Freemasonry and the African Grand Lodge of North America.
The list goes on into present-day America, where Caribbean immigrants now account for 9 percent of the total foreign-born population in the United States, with a conservatively estimated median annual household income of $43,800, higher than Hispanic immigrants at $38,000.
It is time for Caribbean immigrants, Caribbean-Americans and West Indians to be recognized for the important bloc they are and for the major part they have played in the growth of America. And it is time for them to secure their own category on U.S. Census forms that would allow them to accurately self-identify instead of simply being dismissed and ignored as a foreign-born group that “just got off the boat” and is focused only on benefiting from civil rights that African-Americans have fought for.
Remember, West Indians fought, too, creating part of the melting pot from slavery to the modern day, and they continue to do so in these United States of America!
Happy National Caribbean-American Heritage Month (#NCAHM).
The writer is CMO of Hard Beat Communications, which owns the brands News Americas Now, CaribPR Wire and Invest Caribbean Now.